This interview was originally published in Volume 11, Issue 1 of the Free Minds Connect.
Free Minds member JoJo was arrested at the age of 16 and served five years. He was released in 2015. He is the Co-founder of #WeFitDC, a company dedicated to closing the health and wellness gap in the District, and shining light on native DMV wellness professionals. He is currently a fellow at the Georgetown Pivot Program, a one-year business and entrepreneurship program created specifically for formerly incarcerated individuals at the Georgetown University School of Business. Recently, Kelli sat down for a conversation with JoJo about his life and his life’s work.
KELLI: I remember meeting you on the juvenile unit back in 2009. And look at you now! Can you start by telling us about your childhood and what things led up to your incarceration?
JOJO: I was a Ward 8 baby. My mother fell victim to the crack epidemic. She couldn’t really take care of me and my little brothers so our 19-year-old sister got custody of us, even though she was still just a baby herself. She and her husband did the best they could. They made sure we had shoes, we were fed and had a roof over our heads. But as soon as I went outside, or went to school, I’d see violence. Then my sister had kids of her own. Around that time, she suffered a mental breakdown, and Child Protective Services got involved again. This time, they placed me with my biological father, who lived in an underserved neighborhood in Southeast. I was named after my step-father. I’d met my biological father before, but my mother told me he didn’t believe I was his child. It was confusing as a kid. So going to live with him, I felt a lot of anger and hatred for him. At 13, I felt like, “You can’t discipline me!” and “Don’t put your hands on me!” Instead, I’d be getting caught up representing my neighborhood, fighting, missing school, and robbing people. I was doing all the things that eventually landed me in jail.
KELLI: You served five years. Is there a particular time you can identify when a transformation happened in your life?
JOJO: Absolutely. It was during the last part of my bid. I was about to fight this guy and his cellmate pulled me aside. The cellmate had been locked up for 19 years. My nerves went up and I thought he was going to try to hurt me. But he said: “JoJo, look man. You telling this man you gonna spit in his face. Are you gonna keep doing the same things that got you in here? Because if you gonna go home with the same mentality and keep talking to grown men like that, you gonna get killed, young brother.”
Basically from that day on, everything changed. In that moment, I just connected with the guy. We ended up becoming cellmates. He went to jail in 1993 at the same time I was being created in my mother’s womb. I went to pick him up when he was released in 2016. He’s 47 now and we just have a bond. He’s my business partner!
KELLI: When you were released, did you know you wanted to start a fitness company?
JOJO: To be honest, I didn’t know what to do with my life! I just wanted to do the right thing. I’d been reading, talking with my mentor, and reading Free Minds literature, but I still had no idea. To be honest, I was nervous and scared. I went in as a little boy, and I was coming home as a grown man. I decided wherever I could get a job I was gonna take it.
My very first job was selling tickets to tourists from all over the world for Big Bus Tours–those double-decker buses you see taking people to the monuments and memorials in DC? “Hop on, hop off!” I became one of the top sales agents of the company and got promoted. I wasn’t satisfied with that though. I wanted to drive the buses! I ended up taking a labor job out in Virginia. It was hard. I felt like a slave cutting grass, and there were rats running around, but I did it so I could get experience driving their big trucks. Between the experience and studying on my own, I was able to pass the CDL test and get my license. They couldn’t believe it when I came back to Big Bus Tours with my CDL and started driving the double decker buses! Then I got offered a job in PG County driving people to medical appointments. I got really close with all these older people who were on dialysis or going through chemo, that were really suffering. They started dying left and right and that really hurt me. My own mom had died of AIDS. Between watching my mom suffer and seeing what was happening in my own community, I just developed this passion and decided I wanted to address the disparities in access to quality health care, fitness and wellness in DC.
KELLI: So when exactly was #WeFitDC born?
JOJO: When COVID started, I saw that while Wards 7 and 8 didn’t have the most cases in the city, we still had the most deaths. COVID was affecting a predominantly Black population that already had underlying health conditions because of the healthcare desert.* I wanted to do something about that for my community. I knew that we had a really strong base of fitness trainers in the DMV, and yet the DC government was overlooking them and bringing fitness people from the outside to represent DC. So I was like, you know what? I’m gonna create a team. I called a few people, like-minded wellness professionals who I felt would be good at this. I set a meeting in the Benning Terrace area to brainstorm. There was literally a shootout happening in the area while we were having this meeting, and we didn’t budge. We were determined to continue the meeting! And that’s how the movement began.
KELLI: What does #WeFitDC do exactly?
JOJO: We started in 2020 by offering free workouts in different neighborhoods that a lot of people are scared to go into. We came consistently, every single week. We partnered with organizations to bring free nutritious food in (oranges, apples, fresh vegetables, water…etc.). We’d have a 45 minute workout with some of the best trainers in the city volunteering their services. At our first workout, more than 90 people showed up! One of the DC Council members even came out. The Bureau of Parks & Recreation tried to shut us down because the crowd was so big and we didn’t have a permit. When that moment happened, I just knew this was what it was supposed to be! This is what I gotta do!
KELLI: And how has #WeFitDC grown?
JOJO: Because we came every weekend consistently, people were like who are these people that just keep showing up? We have quality services too! Certified trainers, yoga instructors, a full-blown curriculum where we educate the community on every factor of wellness. We have guest speakers on subjects like mental health, etc. And the workouts are for all fitness levels, all ages, kids, people with physical issues, we welcome all of them!
It really exploded through word of mouth and social media. We’ve also been featured in the media, including on National Public Radio and in Men’s Health Magazine. Right now, I’m participating in the Georgetown Pivot program so that I can learn everything I need to know to strategically build the business. I came to this program to learn new ideas. I’m like a great white shark. I’m serious! I just want to keep learning. We are building partnerships (we already partner with Giant Foods, Martha’s Table, and others) so that we can pay our trainers what their services are worth. We’ve also developed a #WeFitDC apparel line. Everyone’s been asking for apparel. They want to wear the #WeFitDC name! I don’t want to do anything prematurely, though. I am learning so I can market it correctly and do everything the smart way.
KELLI: What goals do you have for #WeFitDC and your own career going forward?
JOJO: I want #WeFitDC to focus on healthy activations (the free workouts) and use apparel sales and our partnerships as a funding stream. We also partner with corporations to do virtual and in-person fitness services for their employees. I’ve got a nonprofit organization and plan to develop a trainers’ certification school. I’ve already been approached by people around the country asking me how to bring the concept to their cities. Ultimately, I’m working to get #WefitDC in other communities and just continue to grow the brand.
But my life isn’t just #WeFitDC. I’m also studying acting. For the last six years, I’ve been studying acting at The Theatre Lab (a dramatic arts school in DC). In fact, I’m starring in King Lear next month! I love acting. I’ve also had a few small roles in HBO productions. I want to dominate the acting industry too!
My most important title though is “Daddy.” I have two boys and a girl. My family means everything to me. I love them very much. They see how I’m a go-getter. I bring them out to the workouts. They see me speak. They see my leadership. I’m so grateful to God, that they can see both the hard work and the grind, but also the good things that come when you’re doing the hard work to help others.
KELLI: Okay, JoJo, you’re starting to make my head spin with everything you do! In closing, what would you say you love most about your work?
JOJO: Honestly? I love the opportunity to give back to my community. There was a time when I used to think of myself as a monster. That’s definitely how the government saw me. So for me to see myself differently now, to be giving back is great. During the colder months, we’ve shifted our teams to doing environmental cleanups in the hood. And one day this kid walked up to me and said, “Look, Mommy! It’s WeFit!” I was like, “Wow, we’re looked at like superheroes!” It was an amazing feeling to have someone see me that way. This all started from passion. It’s a business now, but that wasn’t the ultimate goal. I saw it as a movement to help people. This is my baby.
*Healthcare desert refers to areas across the U.S. where people lack adequate access to six key healthcare services: (1) pharmacies, (2) primary care providers, (3) hospitals, (4) hospital beds, (5) trauma centers, and (6) low-cost health centers.